The developer of the residential towers for the $4.9-billion Atlantic Yards sports village in Brooklyn, N.Y., is hedging its bets. In case negotiations with the building trades don't work out for the first tower, planned as the world's tallest modular building, Forest City Ratner Cos. is poised to construct the 32-story high-rise the conventional way.

The Brooklyn-based developer is so hyped on modular that even if the high-rise plan does not fly, it intends to set up shop as a third-party modular building fabricator. "We think [modular] can be explosive for the business," says Robert P. Sanna, FCRC director of construction and design development. FCRC subsidiaries, Atlantic Yards LLC and Brooklyn Arena LLC, are developing the 22-acre village, including a 675,000-sq-ft arena (see p. 20).

By the developer's estimate, the modular version of the 322-ft-tall tower, which stacks 350 self-supporting living units in a site-erected, structural-steel-braced frame, would move 60% of the work from the field to the factory floor. FCRC also figures the building would cost 20% less than a conventional twin and slice four to six months off an 18-month schedule.

The savings would come from concurrent factory and site construction, lower factory labor costs and efficiencies associated with factory production, such as a controlled climate.

"The [actual] efficiencies are captured only by doing it," says MaryAnne Gilmartin, director of commercial and residential development for FCRC, the tower's developer. "We think this gets cheaper over time," she adds.

The high-rise modular approach is the brainchild of Bruce C. Ratner, FCRC's chairman and CEO. His scheme was born of a need to find a more economical way to deliver 6,430 units of affordable and market-rate rental housing, comprising six million sq ft in 14 buildings.

"If modular works for the first residential building, it can work for all of them," says Gilmartin. "Starting a new factory, a new business, makes sense for Atlantic Yards."

High-rise modular may be untested, but its parts are based on tried-and-true modular components. Even Forest City Enterprises Inc., FCRC's Cleveland-based parent company, dipped into modular housing in the 1960s, with nearly 60,000 low-rent units for the elderly. Modular buildings, which were often associated with poor-quality and mundane architecture, are coming back into favor, thanks to production efficiencies.

Ratner's high-rise scheme would be unorthodox anywhere. It is radical for the Big Apple, where innovation is not easy.

Consequently, in advance of filing plans, FCRC has been meeting with city building officials to smooth permitting and approvals issues. It also is in talks with the local Building and Construction Trades Council, which represents union locals.

"We need an agreement with labor before we can get a bank loan, and [we] are working on both," says Gilmartin. "We are all optimistic, but if we run into a problem, we will build conventionally."

FCRC expects to start the first of three buildings in phase one by year's end. The other two are planned to follow, each six to nine months apart.